Bookbag: Religion 351-The Historical Jesus

THE CATALYST: Mark Goodacre, a professor in the religious studies department, has been teaching the course for ten years. “I inherited it. The first thing I did when I got to Duke was look to see what was on the books already. I saw ‘Historical Jesus’ and thought, ‘I would love to teach this course.’ ” He believes the course focuses students’ minds with a detached, critical perspective rather than one rooted in Christian tradition. “Who can’t be interested in Jesus?—Even if you know nothing about him. From cultural relevance to religious relevance, he is a fascinating figure.”

THE GIST: Goodacre says Christianity has been influential to millions of people for centuries. The course asks such questions as: What did Jesus do? What did he achieve? Is there a difference between the historical Jesus and the Christ experienced by Christians today?

ASSIGNMENT LIST: The course expects students to read widely and become familiar with the primary texts from both Christian and non-Christian authors, which they are quizzed on regularly. Goodacre chooses not to expend classroom energy with testing. “The classroom should be an intellectually enriching experience for everybody, including me.” Students also are expected to write three papers, including one on the scholarship of Jesus and one giving the students an opportunity to prove to be scholars themselves.

THE TWIST: The objectives are not only to gain insight about Jesus historically, but also to learn about the nature of religious studies and the historical method. “They should know doing religious studies isn’t about Bible study,” says Goodacre. To do religious studies, one does not have to be a participant in the tradition. “It’s a democratic process, and something we want atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews all to participate in together.”

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